On the morning of November 9, a group led by a man who is alleged to have been involved in the 1997 Acteal massacre chased a family of adherents to the Zapatista's Other Campaign off of the land where they've lived since 1973.
The confrontation started when the group began work to construct a road through land occupied by adherents to the Zapatista’s Other Campaign in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas. The adherents consider the construction of the road to be a pretext to evict them because the construction crew was accompanied by surveyors who came to measure the property’s boundaries, ostensibly in order to sell the land. The land the adherents occupy is legally federal property and a protected zone because the Utrilla mansion, officially a historical monument, is located there. However, the property is registered with the Zapatistas’ Good Government Council in Oventik.
A bulldozer arrived at the Utrilla mansion at 7am yesterday morning accompanied by a group of about forty people, some of whom have violent pasts. According to Salvador Santiz Perez, an adherent to the Other Campaign who has lived with his 26-member family in the Utrilla mansion since 1973, the invading group felled eight trees without permission on federally protected land in order to construct a small road that would connect two roads that lead from the highway into the Cuxtitali neighborhood.
Santiz Perez says that this is the latest in a series of confrontations provoked by this group, which doesn’t currently belong to any organization. He pointed out one man in particular who was photographing Other Campaign adherents who came to support his family. Santiz Perez says the man taking pictures kidnapped and beat him up in 2002. The man has never been prosecuted for the crime.
Domingo Lopez Angel, a local leader who supports the Santiz Perez family, alerted the police that a group of people began construction in the federally protected zone. Two municipal police arrived accompanied by Jose Alberto Corso, the Ecology Director from the Attorney General’s Office for Environmental Protection (Profepa in its Spanish initials). Upon inspecting the damage, Corso declared, “They knocked down the fence; they knocked down trees. This is a provocation. This is a monitored zone, and there haven been any permits issued in this zone for this sort of work.”
Marcos Santiz Shilon, Santiz Perez’s father and the leader of the group attempting to construct the road, admitted that he did not have permission to carry out the work. Santiz Shilon argued that he plans to purchase the land.
Santiz Shilon contracted a surveyor that was observed yesterday morning measuring the property’s boundaries. Santiz Perez says that this is not the first time Santiz Shilon has hired surveyors to measure the property. He claims Santiz Shilon wants to sell the land even though it isn’t his to sell. He says Santiz Shilon has already sold lots to various people for MX$40,000-$60,000 each, cheating them out of their money because he doesn’t hold the deed to the land. Some of the buyers have been able to construct houses on the property even though they don’t hold legal deeds to the land, but others have had to abandon their “property” because the purchase was not legal.
Statements from both Santiz Perez and San Cristobal’s northern zone’s official representative to the municipal government, Pedro Ramirez Lopez, indicate that Santiz Shilon is attempting to legalize his business of selling lots on the Utrilla property. Both men claim that Santiz Shilon has hired private surveyors to measure the land so that he can come to an agreement with the government to “regularize” (a Mexican term that refers to the legalization of squatted land) the land surrounding the Utrilla mansion, leaving the mansion to the government but developing (and selling, as Santiz Perez claims) the land in the immediate vicinity of the mansion.
A Tense Confrontation
While the Profepa agent was still assessing the situation, Santiz Shilon’s group swarmed the area, led by two local political bosses: northern zone representative Ramirez Lopez and Criselio Gomez Lopez, secretary of San Cristobal’s northern zone. Gomez Lopez declared that Santiz Perez’s family could be jailed without bail for occupying a house owned by the federal government. However, the political bosses are not officially government agents, and therefore have no direct power over arrests and bail. However, as the zone’s representative and secretary, they do have weekly meetings with government officials from all of the political parties. These meetings are called cabildos, and there the representatives negotiate benefits for themselves and the zones they represent in exchange for votes. They therefore do carry significant weight within the local government.
After the zone representative and secretary spoke, an unidentified member of Santiz Perez’s mob addressed the crowd. He stated, “Maybe, if the person living in that [Utrilla] house behaves himself, he’ll have an opportunity. If he behaves badly, like he did in 2000….” The man didn’t finish the sentence. But he continued, this time addressing Santiz Perez, “Cooperate and you’ll get a little lot where you can live with your children.”
Santiz Shilon and his supporters began to argue with Agent Corso from the Profepa. Then the entire crowd of at least forty people chased the Other Campaign adherents away from the police. The adherents decided to leave the property, but found that their cars (along with the police cars) had been blocked in by a truck belonging one of Santiz Shilon’s goons. The owner of the truck moved his vehicle, but by the time he did so the mob had descended upon the Other Campaign adherents and their cars. Most managed to get their vehicles off the property, but the mob focused its anger on Domingo Lopez Angel because he was supporting the Santiz Perez family instead of Santiz Shilon’s group. Blocked in by the entire mob—led by Santiz Shilon—Lopez Angel was forced out of his car to negotiate. After an intense argument in the Mayan language Tsotsil, the mob let Lopez Angel leave.
Santiz Perez says he will return to the Utrilla mansion and will defend it with his life, if that becomes necessary. “They can kill my body, but they can’t kill my soul,” he declared. Santiz Perez claims his father wants to kill him and his family.
For now, the Santiz Perez family has sought refuge in CIDESI, the local indigenous university that is also part of the Other Campaign.
The Other Campaign in San Cristobal remains on alert pending notice from the Zapatista’s Good Government Council in Oventik.
A Complicated History
The Utrilla property and the groups who are fighting over it have a long and complicated past.
Marcos Santiz Shilon and his family—including his son Salvador Santiz Perez—arrived on the Utrilla property in 1973. Local political bosses had expelled the family from their Chamula community for being evangelical Christians. Ermilio Dominguez, who owned the Utrilla property at the time, offered the family refuge in the Utrilla mansion in exchange for looking after the property.
At some point prior to 1994, the Dominguez family sold part of their land to the federal government, including the part where the Utrilla mansion sits. The federal government’s Tourism Development Fund (Fonatur in its Spanish initials) is responsible for the land and had long-term plans to develop the historical monument into a tourist zone, but in 1993 it informed the Santiz family that the property was “theirs” and that they could continue living and working there. This was a verbal agreement.
In 1994 when the Zapatistas staged their infamous uprising, other families came to the Utrilla property and staked their claims on the federal land, away from the Utrilla mansion. Given that an indigenous organization had declared war on the government, Fonatur decided that it was best to avoid conflict, and it allowed the family to continue to live in the mansion, which does not have any basic utilities such as electricity or running water. Santiz Perez is very clear that this verbal agreement with Fonatur never meant that the Santiz family owned the property. It meant that the family lived and worked there to protect and preserve the historical site, and it shared these goals with Fonatur.
Following the 1994 uprising, Santiz Perez’s father, Marcos Santiz Shilon, was decidedly anti-Zapatista. However, Santiz Perez says that Santiz Shilon took advantage of the uprising and named himself representative of the people living on the Utrilla property so that he could negotiate with the government. Santiz Shilon even made an official stamp for himself that contains the image of an armed Emiliano Zapata.
While acting as self-appointed representative of the recuperated lands, Santiz Shilon joined the Frente Cardenista political party. The other families who had taken advantage of the uprising to stake their claims on the federal land also jointed the Frente, and they flew the political party’s flag on the land. They used the Zapatista uprising as leverage to negotiate perks from the government, which was more than happy to dole out gifts in order to quell revolutionary sentiment amongst the poor and indigenous populations. Santiz Perez says they received a MX$70,000 fish farm project. He says that in addition to courses in managing a fish farm, the project also gave cash to the Frente members in order to start up their fish business. Santiz Perez claims that his father used part of this money to purchase a car.
Santiz Perez claims that he and others observed his father organizing meetings in preparation for the infamous Acteal massacre that left 45 unarmed people dead. Santiz Perez also says that on December 21, 1997, the night before the massacre, men in trucks arrived in the neighborhood looking for Santiz Shilon. According to Other Campaign adherents close to Santiz Perez, the men in trucks left for Chenalo (the county where Acteal is located) with Santiz Shilon and others from the Frente Cardenista. They were gone all day on December 22, 1997. When Santiz Shilon and the other local Frente Cardenista members returned, Santiz Perez and others confronted his father and asked him where he was during the massacre. Santiz Perez reports that his father replied, “We went over there because there was a problem.” Santiz Perez made an official statement against his father through the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center and Enlace Civil, arguing that if Santiz Shilon didn’t directly murder anybody during the massacre, he certainly helped those who committed the crime. As often happens in war—and especially in the low intensity war in Chiapas—this drew the battle lines between father and son.
Santiz Perez says that his father’s constant threats against his family worsened in 2000 when Santiz Perez kicked Santiz Shilon out of the mansion for swindling people out of their money by selling them the Utrilla land without a deed. The situation became violent in 2002, when Santiz Shilon and his followers began to attack the family living in the mansion. In that year Santiz Shilon sent word through his brother that he had a militia of eighty armed men. That was also the year that one of Santiz Shilon’s goons kidnapped and beat up Santiz Perez.
Santiz Perez argues that his father’s attacks are based in his hatred for the Zapatista National Liberation Army, and not in a family conflict. Indeed, when attempting to convince the municipal police, Profepa, and the northern zone’s representative and secretary that he deserved the land, not his son’s family, Santiz Shilon argued that he was a law-abiding citizen, while his son is “a Zapatista.” Santiz Perez says that the Utrilla mansion is registered with the Zapatista Good Government Council in Oventic, and is under their control as part of the land recuperated by the movement. He’s also publicly declared his intentions to turn the Utrilla property into a cultural, artistic, and political space for Zapatistas and the Other Campaign in San Cristobal de las Casas, known as La Otra Jovel. One of the family’s first actions in this regard was to use the space construct a massive paper mache Emiliano Zapata for a Zapatista event in the Oventik aguascalientes.
Possible Federal Intervention
The situation remains tense. Santiz Perez and his family have been displaced since yesterday afternoon when the mob ran them off their land. Neither Santiz Perez nor members of La Otra Jovel have been able to return to the Utrilla property to assess the situation there because of fears of violence. Members of the mob were observed photographing adherents’ license plates on the Utrilla property yesterday.
This morning an Other Campaign adherent observed Santiz Shilon entering the San Cristobal de las Casas municipal palace with Representative Ramirez Lopez and Secretary Gomez Lopez. The same adherent noted that the weekly cabildo meetings happen every Monday morning in the municipal palace. Subsequently, adherents to the Other Campaign in San Cristobal, including Santiz Perez, have stated their “certainty that there [in the cabildo meeting] they will request the municipal government’s support and intervention in negotiating and speeding up the eviction process” at the state and federal level, “given that they [Santiz Shilon and his group] argue that the building is federal property.” The adherents are concerned that Santiz Shilon will request federal intervention in the conflict.
More photos of the November 9 confrontation at the Utrilla mansion are available here.